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Has the Vatican sacrificed religious freedom for ties with Vietnam?

An agreement likely to be announced this week is aimed to benefit the Communist Party rather than the people
Poland Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the second non-resident representative of the Holy See to Vietnam, blesses Catholics at Qui Nhon Cathedral on July 14

Poland Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the second non-resident representative of the Holy See to Vietnam, blesses Catholics at Qui Nhon Cathedral on July 14. (Photo courtesy of gpquinhon.org)

Published: July 25, 2023 11:52 AM GMT
Updated: July 26, 2023 04:44 AM GMT

Many Vietnamese Catholics are highly delighted by the news that Vietnam and the Vatican have basically reached a deal in which "Hanoi will allow the Holy See to have a resident representative in the communist-run country."

The deal is expected to be formally announced during a visit to the Vatican this week by Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong.

However, it should be known that in order to reach this agreement, the Holy See has had to persistently pursue a line of dialogue with Vietnam for the past 33 years, accepting the communist government's strict or limited foreign policy, which is aimed at benefiting the Communist Party rather than the people.

Seeing the chain-like collapse of the Soviet-led communist bloc in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, Hanoi, which was adopting an open-door policy to avoid such a collapse, tried to enlist the Vatican’s support by allowing a Vatican delegation led by the late Cardinal Roger Etchégaray, then head of the Council of Justice and Peace, to make a historic visit to the country on July 1-13, 1989. The delegates met with government officials and paid pastoral visits to some local dioceses.

The first two-week visit was seen as a landmark event to open direct dialogue about the normalization of relations between both sides. The communist government had expelled the Vatican’s last apostolic delegate, Archbishop Henri Lemaitre, and cut off bilateral ties with the Vatican after they took control of the former US-backed South Vietnam in 1975.

The following year, Etchégaray led another three-member delegation to pay a formal working visit to Vietnam. The two sides resumed contact towards establishing diplomatic relations and discussed ways to deal with issues related to the local Church.

Four years later, Vu Quang, head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, told state-run media, “The Vatican is required to notify the government of all issues related to the Catholic Church in Vietnam and, with the agreement of the government, make decisions. This includes the Vatican’s plans, the nomination of cardinals, bishops and apostolic administrators and other matters of mutual interest. When the two sides have different opinions, they meet face-to-face to discuss."

This "hasty" agreement has presented the Vatican as a fait accompli and forced it to run after Hanoi’s foreign policy for more than three decades.

Officials from both sides have thus far held 17 formal meetings discussing pastoral activities, ordinations and priestly formation. A Vietnam-Holy See joint working group established by the two sides in 2008 has had ten rounds of talks on discussing necessary steps to upgrade diplomatic relations. The latest meeting took place at the Vatican in March.

Cardinals Crescenzio Sepe, Ivan Dias and Fernando Filoni, who served as prefects of the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, were allowed to pay pastoral visits to local dioceses in 2005, 2011, and 2015 respectively. German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of Pope Francis' eight cardinal advisers, led a five-member delegation to visit the country in 2016.

In return, former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and became the first Vietnam leader to visit the Vatican. Later, other top officials including Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s powerful leader, also met with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The Vatican named Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli as its first non-resident pontifical representative for Vietnam in 2011 after 20 years of dialogue with the Vietnamese government.

The Vatican also had to remove Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet from Hanoi archdiocese to please the government. Kiet had asked the government to return former Church properties including the former apostolic delegates building next to the Hanoi Archbishop’s House.

This time, the Vatican is allowed to upgrade diplomatic ties with Vietnam from a non-resident to a permanent resident status, on condition that the Holy See does not reclaim the building, and Vietnam authorities must approve the regulations of the Vatican’s Representative Office.

However, the key point is that in order to be allowed to appoint a resident apostolic representative to Vietnam, the Holy See has to sacrifice its exclusive privilege of episcopal appointments as Canon Law 377 stipulates: "In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities."

In Vietnam, the episcopal appointment process is quite complicated. After finding a suitable candidate, the Holy See will notify the government of his identity for consultation. Under the current agreement, the government must give its opinion within the time period specified by the two sides.

In some cases, the government responds quickly within a few months; in other cases, the deadline has been extended many times; and there are also cases where the government has not accepted the nominee.

After receiving the consent of the government, the Holy See will inform the local Church and take other necessary steps for episcopal nominations. When notifying the local Church about the date of publication of the appointment letter, the Holy See also informs a few public agencies.

In short, with this agreement, the government does not have the power to nominate a bishop, but it has the right to deny an appointment.

As a result, the Holy See has allowed the communist authorities to interfere in its internal affairs, especially letting them take the initiative in the most important job of choosing local Church leaders. That makes the Church not only take on passive roles, be controlled, and lose its missionary dynamism, but also swaps the right to freedom of religion, the most sacred human right, for a fanciful friendship.

The fact that the Vatican is allowed to appoint a resident representative, in terms of diplomacy, means the two sides have only reached an agreement at the smallest level, according to which the resident papal representative only has the role of liaison between the Holy See and the host country in terms of worship.

In other words, the normalization of Vatican-Vietnam relations has not yet come to fruition as the Holy See does not have an apostolic nuncio to Vietnam.

With Vietnam's current strict foreign policy, perhaps the Holy See will have to lose more things, and no one knows when the two sides can establish diplomatic ties, while the Holy See has failed to protect the most important thing, which is the right to religious freedom.

Overall, during the past 33 years, the Holy See has sacrificed its special privileges for dialogue, for the desire to establish diplomatic ties with Vietnam. However, it seems that the Vatican is only wishing for and Vietnam has never wanted ties, unless neighboring China, which has no diplomatic ties with the Vatican and heavily influences Vietnam, gives the green light!

Father John Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong is a Redemptorist from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. This article was summarized and translated by a UCA News reporter from a Vietnamese article published at tinmungchonguoingheo.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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